GREENVILLE — The Michael Perry interim coaching era began for the second time in two seasons at East Carolina, the latest one starting with a 93-88 overtime victory over nonconference rival UNC-Wilmington in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum on Thursday night.
A program that has seen its share of hard times since Perry was 6-8 at the end of the 2016-17 season overcame the biggest shock of all when coach Jeff Lebo submitted his resignation Wednesday. Senior B.J. Tyson led ECU (3-4) with 30 points and explained his motivation afterward.
“I told Coach Rob (director of basketball operations Kyle Robinson) that I was going to be playing for Coach Lebo,” Tyson said. “I want him to know that. I dedicated it to him. … I wanted to go out here and give it my all.”
Tyson went to the line for two shots with the Seahawks leading 79-78. After missing the first, he dropped the second.
“I should have made both of them,” Tyson said at the postgame interview session. “We should have been going home by now.”
UNCW’s Jordon Talley missed a hurried 3-pointer as time expired in regulation.
“B.J. was beating himself up a little bit before overtime for missing one of those free throws,” Perry said. “We told him we would get them in overtime. The crowd was tremendous and we were able to feed off that. The crowd is our sixth man. We told him we would be in good shape.”
Isaac Fleming, who had 21 points for the Pirates before fouling out, scored on a drive with 3:20 left in the extra period to put ECU ahead to stay at 84-83.
The advantage swelled to six points, at 91-85, with 30 seconds left on a free throw by freshman Shawn Williams, who had 15 points.
Talley made it a one-possession game with his three from the right corner that drew the Seahawks within 91-88 with 25 seconds remaining,
Two more free throws by Tyson provided the final margin.
ECU overcame a 35-point effort by post player Devontae Cacock of the Seahawks (2-4) as he made 16 of 19 field goal attempts.
“He’s really crafty and he understands the angles,” Perry said. “We made adjustments and threw every defensive scheme at him. We threw everything but the kitchen sink at him.”
Dimitri Spasojevic had 10 points and six rebounds for the Pirates. Jabari Craig scored eight points and controlled a game-high 14 rebounds.
Kentrell Barkley had nine points, five rebounds and blocked three shots as ECU snapped a two-game losing streak.
Barkley was asked about differences between Lebo and Perry.
“They preach the same principles as far as basketball,” Barkley said. “(Coach Perry) just focused on us playing hard, playing harder, doing it 10 times harder than we were doing it before and while we’re doing it harder, we’ve got to make sure we do everything right as far as executing plays — run the offense, play great defense all the time and just not giving up. Just doing it harder and better each time.”
The Pirates have had their share of adversity since Perry’s previous stint as the interim while Lebo was recovering from hip replacement surgery. Deng Riak transferred to Akron and Elijah Hughes left for Syracuse. Two players, Jeremy Sheppard, a returning starter, and Raquan Wilkins were suspended prior to the season and reportedly won’t be back.
Losses to Radford, Central Connecticut State, Rutgers and North Carolina A&T had frustrated the fan base.
The win over UNCW provided a catharis for a crowd of 3,373. Fleming instigated a visit to the student section to interact and celebrate.
Perry is ready to let more good times roll as he will be in effect auditioning to remove his interim tag.
“We want to get in a flow and play fast,” Perry said. “We want our guys to think fast. We want our guys to have space.”
Perry echoed Tyson’s tribute to Lebo.
“They wanted a good sendoff for him, obviously,” Perry said. “I can’t say enough about him. I told him yesterday that I’m a better basketball coach having coached with him.
“He doesn’t always get his due in that regard, but he’s a really good basketball coach. I’m a better basketball coach and we’re a better basketball team because of the foundation that he laid for us.
“He’s actually a better guy than he is a basketball coach. The guys really liked him. They really cared a lot about him, particularly B.J., who’s been here the longest with him. His heart was really into it in terms of his performance.”
ECU hosts Delaware State on Saturday at 5 p.m.
“We want to enjoy the moment,” Perry said. “We want to grow each day. We want to get better. I told our kids, ‘Enjoy the moment.’ I used the be in college, too. I know what a Thursday night is on college campuses and college towns. ‘Be cognizant of what the big picture is here. We play in less than 48 hours. We love this feeling that we have right now and we want it again. … Winning starts now. It doesn’t start at five o’clock on Saturday.’ ”